Ute Cemetery to be nominated for historic status
Aspen will seek a national historic designation for its oldest burial place, the Ute Cemetery.
The quiet, overgrown cemetery off Ute Avenue has long been recognized as an historic resource, despite its state of neglect, according to Amy Guthrie, the city’s historic preservation officer.
Last year, the Colorado Historical Society awarded Aspen a $3,400 grant to prepare a nomination of the cemetery for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places. Today, the City Council will be asked to authorize use of those funds to hire a Fort Collins-based consultant who will prepare the application.
Ron Sladek of Tatanka Historical Associates will visit Aspen this spring, after the snow recedes, to conduct research and document the cemetery’s historical significance, according to Guthrie.
The Ute Cemetery, apparently known originally as the Evergreen Cemetery, is the only city-owned cemetery in Aspen.
Historical research done in 1996 indicates the first burial there took place in June 1880, when a Texan died of “mountain fever” shortly after crossing over the Red Mountain Trail into Aspen. He was buried at what became the Ute Cemetery, but his body was exhumed a year later for transport back to Texas, according to newspaper accounts at the time.
The cemetery became the site of the mining camp’s Memorial Day observances, and in 1890, markers were received for the graves of 15 Union soldiers buried at the Ute. The markers were to be installed in time for Memorial Day that year. The graves of a number of Civil War veterans are grouped together in an area dubbed Military Ridge.
In 1889, the Aspen Grove Cemetery off what is now McSkimming Road was founded, and in 1890, a number of fraternal lodges banded together to establish the Red Butte Cemetery off Cemetery Lane. Both remain privately owned cemeteries.
The Ute is considered a “pioneer cemetery,” according to Guthrie. Its layout is much less formal than the neat rows of graves common to newer cemeteries. Narrow trails wind among clusters of gravesites.
“I think it’s a really, really interesting historical site,” Guthrie said.
The Ute Cemetery fell out of use and has been slowly reclaimed by nature. Today, aspen trees have overtaken many of the plots. Grave markers have suffered at the hands of vandals and time. Many are toppled, broken or askew. The earliest ones are barely legible, their inscriptions weathered and covered with lichens.
Iron fences around some plots remain intact; wooden ones are in a serious state of disrepair, previous surveys of the cemetery note.
In addition, about 50 gravesites are apparently unmarked, Guthrie said. In June 1999, a ground-penetrating radar survey of the three- to four-acre cemetery was conducted in an attempt to document disturbed areas that are likely unmarked graves.
This year, the city also hopes to prepare a management plan for the cemetery that will address, in part, how much restoration work should be done there, Guthrie said.
“That’s something we need to figure out – how much do we want to restore it?” she said. “I don’t think we want to go crazy, because it’s a delicate site. At the same time, it’s such a beautiful resource.”
One thing is certain – the city is not likely to start mowing the grasses and cutting back the undergrowth and trees.
City forester Stephen Ellsperman has surveyed the grounds and documented several rare plant species growing at the long-undisturbed site.
The cemetery, he concluded, “is one of the most unique micro-ecosystems within Aspen.” The Ute could qualify for listing as a Colorado Natural Heritage Conservation Area, according to Ellsperman.
“At the very minimum, it is the best example of predevelopment natural landscape within Aspen,” he said in his report.
In addition to native plants, the hilly cemetery blooms with a proliferation of irises and daffodils each spring. The plants likely trace their roots to flowers planted on gravesites as much as a century or more ago, according to Guthrie.
About 25 buildings in Aspen are on the National Register, Guthrie said. None of its cemeteries have the designation.
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Posted: Monday, February 26, 2001
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